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Google Releases Android 3.1, First Big Honeycomb Update

Google's tablet-optimized OS gets a boost with improved widgets and task access, but details remain sparse.

Google today announced its first significant update to Android 3.0 Honeycomb. Google will roll out the update to Verizon Xoom 3G users today, and to other Honeycomb devices over the next couple of weeks.

The announcement was made during today's keynote address at the Google I/O developers' conference in San Francisco.

What I find most interesting are the things Google focused on here at the keynote. Namely, that the improvements mentioned, though welcome, don't seem to address many of the issues I've already identified in Android 3.0. At the forefront: The image rendering glitch that's very obvious in the Gallery app, where images appear fuzzy and lack detail as compared with their original versions.

Today's update will improve the quick access button's function, so you can scroll amongst your recent tasks, instead of being limited to the number that fit on the screen. Some of these apps may be running, some may not be currently running, but were accessed recently. Google emphasizes that Android manages resources so you won't have to quit an app to launch something else. However, the company hasn't addressed the fact that, confusingly, the OS's poorly designed back button actually exits apps, as opposed to leaving them running in the background.

Also improved: You can now resize widgets horizontally or vertically in Honeycomb. On stage, the demo included resizing the mail widget to show more messages. This capability didn't surprise me; we already saw resizable widgets on Samsung's demo of its upcoming Galaxy Tab 10.1, behind closed doors at CTIA Wireless in March. Google says developers can update their current widgets to support this capability with just a few lines of .xml code.

USB Support

The other talking point on stage: That Android 3.1 has been upgraded to support USB host functionality. This is significant, since it explains why the function of USB ports I've seen on Honeycomb tablets has been spotty at best. I've used USB flash drives and used a USB flash card reader, for example, on the Acer Iconia A500, but the A500 won't work with all USB peripherals. Google says the new USB host functionality will allow tablets to support directly importing photos from a digital camera, as well support peripherals like USB keyboards and input devices like game controllers and mice.

The USB host support is important for another reason, too. Later in the keynote, Google introduced its Android Open Accessory strategy, to enable the creation of accessories that will work with Android 2.3.4 Gingerbread and Android 3.1 Honeycomb devices. Google gave an example of plugging a phone into a LifeCycle exercise machine, with an app called Cardio Quest. The exercise bike recognized that it was connected to a phone. The application programming interface then can control the bike and the game a rider is going to play as he bikes. Along with the Android Open Accessory strategy, Google also released a hardware and software reference design to get accessory makers going.

In addition to the above, Google announced its plans for Ice Cream Sandwich, the next version of the Android operating system for smartphones that unifies the Honeycomb interface with the mobile phone experience.

Google also mentioned some interesting stats highlighting the company's ongoing momentum: Google has more than 200,000 apps in its Android Market, and more than 4.5 billion apps have been installed on Android devices.

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